Sunday, September 26, 2010

Lyon part I: The first night & La Machonnerie

10 August, 2010

The morning and early afternoon of August 10 weren't my most exciting - I finished packing, checked out of my hostel in Aix, then took a city bus to the bus station, and then a navette, or shuttle, essentially, to the Aix TGV train station.  I wasn't sure how long the trips would take, especially with my shoddy luggage repair job, so I left plenty of time and ended up getting to the train station a few hours before my train to Lyon departed, but I would definitely prefer to be way early than to worry if I would arrive on time.  The train ride itself was a couple of hours long and pretty uneventful.

When I was planning this trip, Lyon was another must-see city.  It is considered by many to be the "gastronomic capitol of France;" however, I think that is in large part due to being home to restaurants of such renowned chefs as Paul Bocuse.  And while I'm sure his restaurant is outstanding, with prix-fixe menus between 135-220€, per person... that's just a little above my budget.  I wasn't sure whether more reasonably-priced restaurants might also contribute to this reputation.  But I did know a little of Lyonnaise traditional cuisine.  For the real deal, you want to find a bouchon - literally, bouchon translates to cork, as in the cork of a wine bottle; however, in Lyon, it is also the name of traditional home-style restaurant where you order a pot, not a bottle, of wine (it comes in a special 46cl bottle with a very thick bottom), and eat quenelles de brochet au sauce Nantua (pike dumplings in a crayfish sauce), poulet de Bresse (chicken from Bresse, a breed of chicken renowned in France for being especially delicious), or tablier de sapeur (a typical tripe dish made with a membrane of the rumen).  After being impressed by maatjesharing and filet Américane in Brussels, it seemed pretty clear to me that dishes are considered "specialties" for a reason, and I shouldn't knock a dish before trying it - so I was pretty excited to come to Lyon and taste some of these dishes for myself.

When I arrived in Lyon, I took the metro to the stop nearest my hostel.  From the metro, it was only a five-minute walk to the hostel; however, that walk happened to be over cobblestones and up a mountain - neither of which was particularly helpful when dragging my luggage, whose make-shift "fix" was completely destroyed.  The upside, however, is that the view over the city on the way up was pretty spectacular:

By the time I got settled into the hostel, it was about 6:00 pm.  I was getting hungry, so I decided to look for some dinner.  I had thought I might just stop at a grocery, but I passed La Machonnerie, which had been recommended in my France food guide book as an excellent source for traditional Lyonnaise cuisine.

I wasn't disappointed.  Just as a note - if you see this in a restaurant window, it's a pretty good bet that you've found a really good spot for dinner:

Three major guides - Michelin, Petit Futé, and Routarde all give out recommendations (and stickers) for good restaurants; when you see a lot of stickers in a window, you can bet it's a good one.

I went in and asked for a table, but it was only 6:30 and the restaurant didn't open until 7:00, so I headed out to walk around the city a little to kill some time.

Lyon is a beautiful city.  It sits on the meeting point of two rivers: the Saône, and the Rhône.  As I discovered on my hike to the hostel, to the West of the Saône there is a huge hill, called hill Fourvière.  The Northern part of the city is also on a big hill:

View over the Saône to the North
From the town center, you can see the Basilique Notre-Dame de Fourvière perched on top of the hill.  My hostel was maybe two-thirds of the way up that hill.

After getting around to see a little of the city, it was finally time for dinner.

Just upon walking in to the restaurant, they had an appetizer set up on all the tables - grattons:

Grattons, fromage fort, et croûtons
To make lard, you take the fat from the pork and simmer it down for a long time until all the fat has melted.  After pouring off the fat, there are small pieces of meat left in your pot - and those pieces of meat are grattons.  They were then fried in pork fat and salted, a perfect crisp and salty dish to go with an apéritif (a before-dinner alcoholic drink).  The grattons were served with a soft, creamy goat cheese with herbs and mustard, as well as croûtons - dried small pieces of bread.
Now comes the hard part - ordering.  There were a few prix-fixe menus.  The least expensive was 28€ and came with three courses.  But for 30€, you could have six courses.  How could I refuse?

The menu started off with three entrées (appetizers).  The first was pieds de "caillons":

These were pig's feet that were breaded and fried.  They are among the top four dishes I ate while I was in France - SO GOOD.  The flesh was white, smooth, creamy and buttery, with a texture much lighter and silkier than meat.  Very fatty, but such a mellow savory flavor that just melted in your mouth. YUM.  A little hard to eat with lots of tiny bones, but so, so good.

Served at the same time as the pig's feet was a salade Lyonnaise:

The salad came with bacon and croutons and was dressed in an excellent, tangy mustard-based dressing.  The croutons were freshly baked and perfectly crisp while having taken on a little of the flavor of the dressing.  The bacon was lightly salty and smoky and cut into thick little square strips.  The acidity and lightness of the salad were a good match for the heavy, rich pig's feet.

Waiting for the third entrée, I had to make due with just my glass of Beaujolais and a basket of bread:

The Beaujolais (a local appelation, best known as the first wine to be released each year on the third Thursday in November, aptly called "Beaujolais day") was a nice light red wine.  The bread had a dark, thick crust and a rich wheaty flavor.

The third entrée was a bowl of soupe des canuts:

The Canuts were the silk workers of yore in Lyon.  They worked under very difficult conditions and were very poor, and this was a very simple soup - the only ingredients were bread, cream, port, and comté cheese.  It tasted just like buttered toast, but in liquid form - delicious.  Adding a little salt and pepper helps bring out the flavors a little, but the soup doesn't need any alteration.  Perfect comfort food for a cold day.

I ate too much of each of the entrées because they were so good - I had no idea how much there was left to eat.  Next there was the plat principal, the quenelle de brochet dans un coulis d'écrevisse:

Quenelle de brochet translates as pike dumpling, and the coulis d'écrevisse is a crayfish sauce. The quenelle was large - maybe 6 inches long by three inches wide - and completely homogenous.  It had a soft, smooth texture and a delicate, mildly fishy flavor.  The coulis had a rich tomatoey flavor with just a hint of shellfish.  A very delicate, mild dish - and so delicious!  It was brought out to the table in the Dutch oven it was cooked in, and then served into the bowl for me.  Yum.

At the same time they brought out the quenelle, they also brought the gratin aux poireaux:

Poireaux means leeks, and a gratin refers to a cooking method that typically involves baking under a layer of cheese.  The interior of the gratin was super creamy with a nice leek flavor, kind of like a flamiche (a leek "pie" that is a specialty of Northern France), but with more cream.  The cheesy top added a bit of bite for a nice contrast with the otherwise smooth dish.  It was very good, but I only ate a small portion of it.  The waitress asked me whether I liked it, and I told her I did but I already had eaten way too much, and I still had to save room for dessert!

Speaking of dessert, I opted for cheese rather than something sweet, and ordered the cervelle de canut:

Cervelle means, literally, brain, in fact this is just a local dish of fromage blanc (a thick creamy cheese, kind of like cottage cheese but smooth) with salt, pepper, chives, garlic, shallot, vinegar, and, in this case, cabbage oil.  The flavor was pretty sour from the vinegar, with a few green notes from the herbs.  They gave me the whole ceramic pot and I served myself - good thing, too, so that I could just take a tiny portion to taste, as I was about ready to burst at this point.  I had about 5 more bites of everything than I should have - but it's hard to say no when everything is so good!

And just when I thought I was done... there was a little hard candy that came with the check.  It took me a while to place the flavor... it was pine.

If you ever go to Lyon, look up La Machonnerie.  It's amazing.  You won't be sorry!

Coming soon: Lyon part II, or why ordering six courses is a bad idea...

A bientôt,

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